Pre- Modern is the period in society which came prior to Modernity. Modern society began in Europe after the introduction of Industrial society and large scale production. This piece will examine pre- modern society and discuss why the study of this era is important for sociology.
Human history can be divided into three phases: pre-modern, modern and post modern. There is no definite beginning or end to each of these phases; rather they merge into one another, as each society reached these eras at different times. Western Europe is thought to have entered into the modern era around the sixteen hundreds whilst the rest of the world remained pre- modern at this time. Although now most industrialised countries are post modern, a large proportion of the Third World remains modern or in some cases pre- modern.
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The pre-modern era spans from before history and can be separated into two phases, before and after settled agriculture. Before settled agriculture, society lives off the land, hunting and gathering. An example of a hunter- gatherer society that exists today is the Arctic foragers, who occupy the circumpolar region of the earth. Due to the lack of vegetation in this area of the world, most Arctic foragers are forced to live on a diet of meat. As meat is the main food source, many Arctic people are extremely mobile and specialize in different types of hunting and fishing, which vary with the seasons.
‘Pre- Modern’ as a term, covers a number of different societal forms: hunter-gatherer, agrarian, horticultural, pastoral and non-industrial. Pre-modern social forms have now virtually disappeared, although these societies are still in existence in some of today’s societies, therefore ‘Pre- modern’ cannot be defined in terms of historical development.
In this respect, pre-modern societies can be characterised by a combination of economic, political and cultural circumstances.
In pre-modern society, work was not highly specialised and the number of roles necessary to produce things were relatively small, therefore the division of labour was simple when compared to modern societies.
Most of the labour forces engaged in agricultural activity and produced food through subsistence farming. The majority of pre-industrial groups had standards of living not much above survival, meaning that the majority of the population were focused on producing only enough goods for means of survival. By the eighteenth century there was only around thirty percent of the population who engaged in agricultural activity, this enables us to gain some idea of the nature of modern society and the economic changes that took place as modern society developed.
Pre- Modern society was a time without class distinctions and people shared the same sense of values. Religious officials often held the positions of power and were the intermediaries to the general masses. The population of pre-modern times saw God as the main entity and those closest to him, for example the religious officials, as their leaders. Persons in pre- modern society did not see themselves as having an individual identity rather a group identity.
Although in post modern society, the influence of religion appears to have lessened, it formed the basis for modern penal laws, which regulate human behaviour like religion once did in pre- modern times. Social life in pre-modern societies often had religion at its core. Villages were divided into parishes and the observance of religion took place at the community level.
Industrialisation is the process whereby social and economic change transforms a pre- industrial society into an industrial one. Industrialisation also introduces a form of philosophical change, where people take a different attitude towards their perception of nature.
The majority of ordinary people were greatly affected by capitalism and industrial production. England’s Black Country in the 1830’s was described in the following way;
“The earth seems to have turned inside out…. The coal…. is blazing on the surface… by day and by night the country is flowing with fire, and the smoke of the ironworks hangs over it. There is a rumbling and clanking of iron forges and rolling mills. Workmen covered in smut, and with fierce white eyes, are seen moving amongst the glowing iron and dull thud of the forge-hammers.”
The nature of social change
Settled agricultural villages meant the accumulation of storable produce. These food surpluses and other capital represented a cultural advance for civilisation. With the development of storage, in some cases came some social unrest, as what could be stored could also be stolen.
Using the clock to time ones self, as a basis of social organisation, was an indicator of the emergence of modern societies. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries both agricultural and manufacturing labour became set by the clock in a way that was very different to pre-modern production. In pre-modern times factors such as hours of daylight set work rhythms. The factories in contrast were regulated by the clock, labour was synchronised and took place for a certain number of hours each day and on particular days of the week. For the factory owners and their employees, time now equalled money.
Urbanisation was another of the key dimensions in the making of modern society. During the beginning of the modern era, large groups of people moved from the countryside to the towns and cities. By the early 1900’s up to eighty per cent of the population of Britain lived in urban centres. (Kumar, 1978, cited in Bilton et al, p.28)
The transition from pre- modernity into modernity was important for sociology as for the first time people began to see that society was something important to study. Some argue that this was the beginning of sociology and that the emergence of modern societies created a new intellectual and cognitive world.
As modernity took form changes in social attitudes within society occurred making society itself interesting to others. The removal of traditional restraints and the emergence of governments which guaranteed the rights of individuals were therefore seen as progressive developments. In the past sociology was not required as society had been static, perhaps people have become more interesting or society has become very technological making interactions vary. Sociologists tend to study modern issues for example health, Parsons and the sick role, single parent families and other modern day issues. Now society is full of strangers causing new and interesting interactions between people, in the past relationships in the static society were similar and perhaps uneventful. Individuals are naturally rational and should be able to be free to pursue their own interests. Human beings are naturally communal and their interests can therefore only be met collectively (Taylor et al 1997). There is now widespread agreement over the major features of modernity. The eighteenth century enlightenment period previously had not only created an environment in which a new science could be developed due to the value of progress being advertised, but also religious discourses as a means of explaining the natural world were replaced by science and rational thought. The whole set up of society now requires ruling institutions to seek information and perhaps be studied themselves.
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